Lord Andreas Jameson spoke in hushed tones to Lord Spaulding, Reed and Nan, a short distance away from the rest of their group. “The current power structure in Cago and its territories is based, as you are probably all-too aware, on the cultural hegemony established by the first Nats to settle the area, and even today a relatively small population of the descendants of those noble houses, including mine and Lord Spaulding’s. To be fair, it has been beneficial for the indigenous humans and moragi, who have received better organization, technology, irrigation, and of course the repulsion of the Cromen shortly after the Nat settlement. Still, there remains some tension about the sovereignty of the noble houses.
“In my travels, I came to learn some things which would be disturbing to the Council. Firstly, that the Cromen are in all likelihood returning to Cago, and soon.”
“Aha!” exclaimed Spaulding, no doubt seeing an invasion of barbarous cannibals as an excellent opportunity for swashbuckling adventure. Nan and Reed looked a bit less thrilled about such a prospect for some strange reason.
“Secondly,” continued Jameson, “the survival of the area depends on more fully integrating all of Cago’s residents into the power structure. Fully invest them in the overall well-being of the region, so to speak.”
“A stake in its survival?” asked Nan, who although not exceptionally attentive during her diplomatic assignment was all too familiar with the psychological effects of a stake.
“Exactly,” replied the nobleman. “Because if they are not vested in Cago as a whole, it will spell disaster for everyone when the Cromen come.”
“Forgive me,” said Reed, a bit puzzled, “but wouldn’t a Cromen invasion be, uh, motivating for everyone in the area regardless?”
“You would think so,” explained Jameson, “but I have a suspicion that the Cromen are primarily after the Nats. Anyone who harbors a prejudice against Nats might not be so motivated to fight in their defense, you see, and no matter how many fancy guns we can muster, we are far too few to deal with a truly massive invasion. Much much larger than the first one many years ago. Of course,” he said thoughtfully, “once the Nats are destroyed, well, I would not like the chances of the remaining peoples. And once they’re gone, well, Thelabar…” Jameson looked at Nan meaningfully as he mentioned the name of her home city, the dread sanctuary of the Ess.
He continued: “I may not be Ess myself, but I can guess what you might be thinking. Why would this hamlet be attacked by some rogue faction of Nats if they need them for defense? Well, not everyone knows about the impending Cromen invasion, and many wouldn’t believe it anyway. Cromen tend to small raiding parties these days, and by all accounts they’re afraid of the Nats.”
“Still seems irrational,” mused Spaulding.
“Quite,” replied Jameson. “I don’t quite believe it myself. But I suppose anything may be possible, and we just don’t know enough right now. For all we know the guns were stolen. These things happen sometimes; the only good news in such a happenstance is that the guns are not very useful for long without the support of the council. The ammunition, you see… well, you just cannot get it.” Andreas stood, not wanting to go any further on the subject of the percussion guns. He looked sadly over at the survivors, who were now standing, picking up tools, and shuffling toward the ruin of their home. “We have provided some small comfort for these poor people; I think we could provide a little more by helping them bury their dead.” And the entire party, grunty menial servants and noble lords, took up shovels and followed the survivors.
While digging in the fading light, Tookie hobbled up to his master and quietly passed him a broken brooch he had found while digging. Spaulding gazed for a while at the brooch, muttered “Good work Tookie,” and pocketed the cracked signet as he took up his spade again. It was later that night, after Spaulding had delivered an impassioned and actually quite impressive eulogy for the dead villagers and they had all returned to camp, that he confided in Jameson regarding his discovery.
The brooch bore the sign of House Renssalear, a Nat house that had once been quite powerful, but with the disappearance and reported death of their patriarch Lord Criton Renssalear, they had quickly fallen in relevance; the ancient Lady Margaret Renssalear had died soon thereafter, and with Criton’s sons having also been killed in battle, the eldest daughter Elowyn was now the titular head of House, but the Renssalears were now for all intents and purposes irrelevant in politics. “I will tell you this,” said Jameson, “if a Renssalear or someone operating under the auspices of their House is involved somehow, nobody named Renssalear within Fort Cago is likely to be aware of it, much less involved.”
After a night of fitful sleep and deep thoughts, it was decided that the survivor’s best chances lay in loading their meager possessions and themselves on the rafts they used to move dried fish to market villages and pole north, as by now the travelers were low on supplies and still had several days to go to reach Frogg. Also, there was also the seemingly remote but dreadful possibility that the raiders could return; Coz had carefully looked for horse tracks, and had found some leading west from the ruined hamlet, but no other sign of the assailants. The river seemed safer and faster, and the refugees had no objections, so before long they had sadly gathered up what they could and moved slowly north on the water as the party proceeded, a bit more wary now.
Coz was scouting longer and longer now, circling the party at times to look for the enemy as he explained. He was definitely more nervous now, tactfully discouraging Reed from “tagging along” on his trips, as a young boy of low birth on strange ground with no sense of direction might not be the greatest asset when running into raiders. Luckily, there was no trouble on the first day out of the hamlet, and it seemed like they would be able to continue to Frogg without incident.
On the second day Coz failed to return.
“Maybe we should wait for him here. He may be out tracking, or, uh, whatever it is that scouts do,” suggested Reed.
They dismounted and made a quick camp. “I hope he’s all right,” said Nan.
“I wouldn’t worry. Not likely to run into trouble out here I think,” said Spaulding, just as four arrows arced out of a treeline some distance away, two of them hitting one of the men at arms, who dropped like a stone just as a squad of barbarians bearing spears and axes burst out and charged the group.
A ball from Lord Jameson’s musket found its mark, dropping one assailant directly; Spaulding’s pistol shot was not so lucky, embedding itself into a shield instead of its bearer, who then set upon him with an axe. More missile fire from both sides was more or less ineffectual, with the exception of several arrows piercing the armor of one of the men at arms, who managed to stay up despite his wounds, and a number of arrows littering the ground near where Reed stood, attempting repeatedly to quick-draw them from his quiver; his efforts were finally rewarded when one managed to stay within his grasp, just in time to miss the throat of the axeman who was a scant five yards away. Plough managed to inflict some grievous wounds on the enemy with his longsword, and again several of the enemy began screaming and acting irrationally, allowing even Tookie and Sam to fumble their way into subduing one who was running hither and yon with no real objective. Eventually the axeman, remarkably skilled in defense yet by now uncomfortably outnumbered, attempted to flee, but an incensed Lord Spaulding rammed him to the ground with his buckler, where he was quickly subdued.
When the front line assailants were dealt with, the party prepared to charge headlong into the arrow fire from the remainder of their enemies, when a new volley of arrows appeared from behind them, most finding their marks. A Kharaz hunting party had appeared (none apparently missing a hand, although that inconvenience is easily remedied for them), and with new allies, the group managed to quickly finish the remainder of the enemy.
The group of newcomers, led by one Yosef Blades, a tall, fiendish-looking, blue-skinned Kharaz, set about their customary greetings and dispatching of the wounded enemy with spears (Yosef indicated that they were indeed the Cromen) until Spaulding recommended that some of them stay alive for questioning. His wounds bandaged, Spaulding attempted to speak to the axeman, who spoke a strange dialect that seemed reminiscent of Old Amurkan. He asked the pointy-eared, brutish figure, wounded and trussed, what his objective was.
“Me? Why specifically me?” Spaulding asked, surprised.
The Croman chuckled painfully. “You nothing special, just like all Nat, all think they special. You all, Nat you, we come for you.”
“How many of you?”
The adversary stared him straight in the eye. “All of us.”
Lord Jameson gasped. Spaulding was silent for a moment, then relayed this information to his companions, prefacing with, “My friends, the good news is that we should have no shortage of excitement in the near future.” And so the party discussed what this could mean, Reed talked privately to Yosef (no doubt asking, “So can you teach me to track?”), and they tended the wounded, paused for the moment enroute to Frogg.